President Barack Obama’s announcement that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of this year caught nearly all of Washington flat-footed.
One measure: The ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee had taken much of Friday off. For what he said was perhaps the second time in 17 years, Saxby Chambliss and his wife Julianne had decided to stay in D.C. over the weekend and play tourist.
Chambliss had just finished touring the Old Soldiers Home, which served as Abraham Lincoln’s summer retreat during the Civil War, when he checked in. He was not a particularly happy senator.
Here’s a partial transcript of our conversation:
Q: How much warning did you get on the Iraq announcement?
A: The situation in Iraq is something we didn’t expect, didn’t anticipate. It should have been more a question of how many troops and how long they’re going to be there. I don’t think anybody expected them to make this kind of announcement.
What bothers me is that there’s the potential to lose so many of the gains that we made in Iraq — and we paid one heck of a price for them. I’m really concerned that a lack of any U.S. presence in Iraq — not going to be good for the long term.
Q: Did they bring you folks into the decision?
A: No, not at all. None of us on the Hill knew anything about it.
Q: Specifically, what is the concern? Is it that Iran will exert too much influence over Iraq?
A: They’re already doing that, of course. They will have a greater opportunity to inject themselves into the military as well as the political structure of Iraq. Also, just from a security standpoint — the hot spots that existed two, three, four years ago now have the possibility of seeing terrorist activity from al-Qaida and other groups moving back into the area.
Q: What alternatives were out there? Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the issue of immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq was non-negotiable. Once Iraq said no, what could we do?
A: You know, that’s the first time — that I’m aware of — that that’s ever happened. I’m not sure what that tells us about what the Iraqi governmental structure that’s in place now thinks about the participation of the United States over the long term.
I think you’ve got a [U.S.] president who’s been waffling on long-term support for Iraq, and I think that probably played into that decision, on the part of the Iraqis, to not grant immunity. And, of course, we couldn’t stay there without it.
Q: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has put out a statement declaring Obama’s decision to be either “political” or “inept.” Do you agree?
A: I think it’s both. It’s another attempt by the president to appeal to his base. And secondly, you can’t not negotiate immunity for our troops. That is just so fundamental. We’ve never had a president who’s not been able to negotiate that.
Q: Once those troops leave, there’s no way to put them back in, is there?
A: I don’t see how you could. What will be interesting to see is what the president does in the way of contractors that are going to be left — as well as added to the security force to protect U.S. civilians that will remain there by necessity. We’ve got some folks who are doing great work in some pretty remote areas, and all of a sudden, they’re going to have no military protection — a lot of agricultural workers and others are out there, that are going to have to have some security.
The only way you can do it now is through contractors. And that’s super-expensive.
Q: So we’re going to privatize U.S. presence.
A: And we don’t always control that. We know what we went through with some of our previous security contractors. It doesn’t always work out for the best.
Q: Were you kept more in the loop on Libya and the tracking of Moammar Gadhafi, who was found and killed Thursday?
A: I was with the French defense minister [Wednesday night], and I said, ‘Where do you think Gadhafi is?’ And he said, ‘Somewhere in the south.’ And that’s the extent to which they knew, and what we knew about his location. Obviously, it’s a positive result to have him taken out rather than even being captured.
Q: Is the outcome in Libya a validation of the U.S. decision to let France and NATO take the lead on operations there?
A: Certainly Gadhafi’s removal from power was the outcome that everyone has talked about from day one. The fact that it was able to be done without any loss of allied life is a very, very positive thing. I think it shows that we were able to coordinate with the French and the Brits in carrying out a military operation in a successful way.
Maybe that will provide some opportunities in the future for somebody other than the U.S. to provide some military operations for other folks around the world. We’re not going to be the only policeman for the world.
Q: At least it wouldn’t be as expensive. Let me ask you — Senate Republicans have been very critical of President Obama’s domestic policy. How do you assess his foreign policy performance so far? He’s had some pretty big wins this year.
A: He’s had some big wins from the standpoint of continuing to prosecute the war on terror, and I have always been complimentary of him on that. He’s had some tough decisions that needed to be made and he’s made them. The call on [Osama] bin Laden, and continuing to ramp up the drone attacks — all of that has brought about positive results.
Where I’ve been critical of him on his foreign policy is, from day one, he seems to have traveled around the world and apologized for America. But he’s had Secretary [Hillary] Clinton out there. She’s a hard worker, has been a very forceful secretary of state, and has done an outstanding job.
So I think there are pluses and minuses.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider